“I think there is a rhythm to the policymaking that contributes to an opportunity for the military leaders to give him their unvarnished and very candid advice,” McDonough said.
Obama’s relationship with the military was indelibly shaped early in his presidency by the 2009 debate over whether a troop surge in Afghanistan that his generals were pressing for stood a good chance of turning around the worsening conflict.
“From his perspective, he trusted the military and they betrayed him,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a blunt assessment that is shared by many in defense and policymaking circles. The president felt boxed into a political corner by leaks about the troop numbers the generals wanted. After that, “I think this White House made it pretty clear that they intended to run all foreign policy from the Executive Office Building.”
The administration’s inability to keep a residual U.S. military force in Iraq at the end of 2010 after a lengthy policy debate left some senior military officers feeling dejected. The Pentagon wanted to keep 10,000 to 15,000 troops in Iraq after the drawdown.
“The White House was doing what they do best, which was scrutinizing every proposal, which was driving some of the planners on the Joint Staff crazy,” said the former military official. “The White House won that round. They got what they wanted, which was zero.”
Under Obama, the era of high-profile, outspoken generals who became de facto policymakers and politicians during the presidency of George W. Bush came to an abrupt halt. Charismatic and media-friendly generals learned to be circumspect. Senior officers known as quiet professionals got promoted.
As he reassessed how to best use and mold the military as an era of ground wars was coming to an end, Obama developed close, and in some instances warm, relationships with his military chiefs, McDonough said.
‘Their job is to give their best military advice, which they always do, without regard for politics,” thehe chief of staff said. “The president appreciates that above all else.”
Obama has not been reluctant about using force, having signed off in 2011 on the risky raid in Pakistan that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. His counterterrorism policies have largely mirrored, and sometimes have gone beyond, those of his Republican predecessor.
Veterans of the war in Afghanistan have become disappointed about how long it has taken the White House to articulate its long-term plan for the country, where the troop withdrawal is scheduled to conclude at the end of 2014. T.M. Gibbons-Neff, a former Marine sergeant who served two tours in Afghanistan, said many of his contemporaries have belatedly come to appreciate Bush’s decisiveness as commander in chief.
“Guys thought Bush had his stuff together,” said Gibbons-Neff, 25, the president of the veterans association at Georgetown University. “If he was making a good call or a bad call, he was at least making a call.”
Administration officials say Obama is proudest and most humbled when he is surrounded by troops. He has learned a great deal from them, McDonough said, including, perhaps most important, that “an attribute of a great leader is humility.”
The administration will be reviewing this month’s turbulent policy deliberations much like a commander would his decisions at the end of a battle, the chief of staff said.
“The president has demanded of us as a regular matter something that he has seen from the military: a culture of after-action review, a culture of accountability and constant learning,” McDonough said.